Listener as Context

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Reading and writing were not generally accessible until Gutenberg unveiled the printing press around 1440. Fewer than six centuries have passed since then—a blip in the 200,000-year existence of anatomically modern Homo sapiens. When written languages emerged in antiquity, they were the province of elites. In Iron Age Israel (c. 1200-500 BCE), for example, roughly one percent of the population was literate, and most of them were merely “functionally literate”: they knew just enough to manage daily living and employment tasks. The complex poetry and prose in the Hebrew Bible were unintelligible to all but the most privileged classes. Only in the last twenty generations has “literacy for all” become a human possibility.

The rise of literate societies introduced new ways of sharing and digesting information. With texts in hand, people could spend time interpreting, pondering, analyzing, comparing, re-reading, and questioning. Philosophers and storytellers could externalize, revise, and catalogue their thoughts. Authors and readers could communicate without interacting face-to-face. Ideas and information could be technical and logically argued.

For all of its benefits, literacy could not capture or replicate the intimacy of orality. Whereas oral cultures foster immediacy and social connections, written communication tends to be impersonal and removed. Oral traditions are experiential and spontaneous, while written forms are passive and fixed. Spoken words are colored by mannerisms and inflections; written words are static and comparatively emotionless. There are exceptions: love letters and poems can approach the vividness of an interpersonal exchange. But, as a rule, writing lacks presence.

Fortunately, no society is (or really can be) exclusively literate. We cannot evolve beyond the need or propensity for oral expression, which is encoded in our genes. Speaking and listening are innate; writing and reading are add-on abilities. Thus, as print-saturated as our society is, it remains cemented in an oral foundation.

Among other things, this has ensured the persistence of the original meaning-making context: the individual. The listener’s role is crucial in an oral culture. Without ears to hear, information cannot be received or spread. As noted, this mode of communication is a far more immersive and immediate than the written word. Interpretation is likewise instantaneous: meaning is extracted from the largely unconscious workings of memory, conditioning, feelings, education, experience, and the like. There is no need to pore over a detached text. Meaning manifests inside the person.

This is amply demonstrated in musical listening. As an auditory medium, music cannot be understood—or even really exist—without listening. Hints of music can be written in notation or other visual symbols, but these are, ultimately, abstractions. Words are written in letters, objects are photographed, images are drawn, but music evades visualization. It requires the type of information exchange characteristic of oral societies.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

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